Sweetwater River Loop (Cuyamaca Rancho State Park)


The Merigan trailhead at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park is somewhat hidden out of the way on the southwest border of the park. Since its a bit off the beaten track that is Highway 79, this area is quieter and less busy than some of the more popular hikes like Stonewall Peak or Cuyamaca Peak, but just as beautiful as the rest of Cuyamaca.

20150403_DSC6107-EditSweetwaterLoopIn our many trips to Cuyamaca, we had neglected to ever explore this area of the park, or even visit the Merigan trailhead.  So we decided we’d explore the area by tackling this lollipop hike along the Sweetwater River. We managed to find the trailhead without any difficulty, but hadn’t known ahead of time there was an $8 day use fee to park there. Its a self-registration set-up, which means you get one of the little envelopes out of the dispenser at the trailhead, write in some information, insert your cash, drop the envelope in the collection box, and put the receipt stub on your dashboard. Super easy… if you have exact change on you. We ended up having to drive back down the road to a small market and buy something cheap to break a $20. We got a pack of Oreos, in case you were wondering, and they made an excellent post-hike snack.


Once the payment issues were taken care of, we were finally ready to hike. We made our way past an employee residence and followed the dirt road northward. To our left was a wide open grassy field, and to the right was a rocky ridge with some houses above. Tangles of oak trees and scrub brush lined the trail.20150403_DSC6115-EditSweetwaterLoop

After about .33 mile the road began to climb upward. As we climbed the oak trees disappeared and we were surrounded by brushy green chaparral, and the occasional colorful wildflower.20150403_DSC6123-EditSweetwaterLoop20150403_DSC6423-EditSweetwaterLoop

At .7 miles we reached an intersection with the Dead Horse Trail. Staying right, we continued along the Merigan Fire Road.20150403DSC_8815Cuyamaca-SweetwaterLoop

The road leveled out for a bit, and we were high above the course of the Sweetwater river on our left.20150403_DSC6134-EditSweetwaterLoop

Most of the time our view of the river was obscured by the thick vegetation growing in the canyon, but at one point we were able to get a view of a small waterfall cascading over smooth granite far below. I didn’t see anything that looked like an accessible route down to the river from here.20150403DSC_8819-EditCuyamaca-SweetwaterLoop

The road began to climb again and we sweat our way uphill.20150403_DSC6140-EditSweetwaterLoop

We came to another stretch of trail lined with oaks. There were both burnt out husks and blackened, but recovering, living trees. Like so much of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and other areas of San Diego, the trail had been hit by the Cedar Fire in 2003, but the recovery was well underway.20150403_DSC6151-EditSweetwaterLoop

At 1.9 miles we reached the turn off for the Saddleback trail, and followed it to the left.20150403_DSC6166SweetwaterLoop

We walked down slope through soft sand to a dense thicket of riparian brush.20150403_DSC6170-EditSweetwaterLoop

We came to a stagnant section of the Sweetwater River and were able to make our way across a mass of dead stick and branches.20150403_DSC6174-EditSweetwaterLoop

After climbing up out of the riverbed, the trail crossed a small, open meadow before being enveloped once again by oak trees and ceanothus.20150403_DSC6176-EditSweetwaterLoop20150403_DSC6179-EditSweetwaterLoop

The trail soon bent west for a short stretch, and we began to ascend to ridgeline. The oaks briefly gave way to scraggly brush as we climbed up and away from the river.20150403_DSC6185-EditSweetwaterLoop

After a while, we once again found ourselves among blackened but recovering oak trees. A dry streambed ran alongside the trail, and despite the absence of water, a healthy population of gnats and flies inhabited the area and seemed to take delight in tormenting two sweaty hikers.20150403_DSC6209-EditSweetwaterLoop

The trail ascended gradually until at 3.5 miles, we came upon a “T” junction with the California Riding and Hiking Trail (CR&HT).20150403_DSC6276-EditSweetwaterLoop

From here, we could see the distinctive form of Cuyamaca Peak to the north.20150403DSC_8902Cuyamaca-SweetwaterLoop

We turned right along the CR&HT and made our way across a ridgeline carpeted with manzanita and chaparral.20150403_DSC6282-EditSweetwaterLoop

The trail then descended briefly and at 4 miles we came to another “T” junction where we turned right onto the South Boundary Fire Road.20150403_DSC6292SweetwaterLoop

The fire road was a wide, rocky dirt path lined with blooming ceanothus and other jumbled vegetation.20150403_DSC6301-EditSweetwaterLoop

To our right was a deep gorge, and on the other side was an enormous granite ridge.20150403_DSC6302-EditSweetwaterLoop

More colorful pockets of wildflowers could be found along the fire road as well.20150403_DSC6310-EditSweetwaterLoop

At 4.4 miles we came to a “Y” junction and turned right to stay on the South Boundary Fire Road.20150403_DSC6316-EditSweetwaterLoop

We enjoyed a bit of shade courtesy of the oak canopy.20150403_DSC6318-EditSweetwaterLoop

Just shy of 4.7 miles we spotted a game camera mounted on a fence post. This was likely a prime spot for wildlife sightings as just beyond we came to the river again. Once again we were able to keep our shoes dry by using a log to cross the river.20150403_DSC6327-EditSweetwaterLoop

After crossing the river, we turned right on the sandy Sweetwater Trail.20150403_DSC6330SweetwaterLoop

The trail traveled south, following the course of the river. The water was mostly hidden by a screen of riparian brush.20150403DSC_8929Sweetwater

But here and there we caught a glimpse of the running water.20150403_DSC6347-EditSweetwaterLoop

The trail began climbing again until around 5.3 miles when we topped a rise. Below us was a green belt of vegetation marking the course of the river.20150403DSC_8950Cuyamaca-SweetwaterLoop

From here we continued downhill through a colorful display of ceanothus blooms and recovering oak trees.20150403_DSC6380-EditSweetwaterLoop

Finally, at 5.9 miles we rejoined the Merigan Fire Road just past the point we had turned off on the Saddleback Trail. From here, we followed the Merigan Fire Road back to the parking area.20150403_DSC6386SweetwaterLoop

We were almost back at the car when we found a small gopher snake stretched across the road enjoying the cool shade. He politely posed for some pictures, after which we gently encouraged him off the road and into the safety of the surrounding grass.20150403_DSC6447-EditSweetwaterLoop

View the full photo gallery

From I-8 East, take the CA-79 exit. Follow 79 North for approximately 1.3 miles, then turn left onto Riverside Drive, which at some point turns into Viejas Blvd. Follow Riverside Drive/Viejas Blvd for approximately 1.4 miles to the Merigan Day Use area on the left side of the road (just past the Descanso Hay & Feed Store on the right). map

Total Distance: 7.9 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Total Ascent: 700 feet
Dog Friendly?: No dogs allowed
Bike Friendly?: Bikes not allowed
Facilities: Port-a-potty at trailhead, no water
Fees/Permits: $10 Day use fee (self-registration)

For more information, visit:
California State Parks – Cuyamaca Rancho State Park
View route or download GPX from CalTopo

One thought on “Sweetwater River Loop (Cuyamaca Rancho State Park)

  1. Beautifully documented, one of my favorite trail loops, though I typically go the other direction (and on horseback, all these trails are fantastic for trail riders).